Marc Garneau, shown in July, told the CRTC Tuesday that he thinks broadband internet should be considered a basic service, like local home phone service. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The federal government should provide funding to ensure high-speed internet access is available for all Canadians to subscribe to, says the Liberal technology critic.

"All Canadians should have equal opportunity to succeed, no matter where they live," Marc Garneau told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Tuesday. "Without universal access to high-speed internet, this cannot be achieved."

Garneau said a download speed of at least 1.5 megabits per second should be in place across the country by 2014.

The commission is holding hearings on whether broadband internet should be declared a basic service that needs to be regulated like basic phone service.

Garneau, the industry, science and technology critic for the Liberal party and the MP for the Montreal riding of Westmount-Ville Marie, said he believes high-speed access must be part of basic service.

He added that the government should contribute $500 million over three years to achieve the 2014 target for universal access — something his party would do if elected. He added that his party would also be willing to consider a goal of 4.0 megabits per second by 2020. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission set that as its universal access target in the National Broadband Plan submitted to Congress in March.

'Modest' goal

Many other countries, including France, Spain and Finland, have already set targets for universal broadband access, including some that are far more ambitious. For example, Finland made universal access to one megabit per second a legal minimum this past July, and promised to raise that to 100 megabits per second by 2015.


Marc Garneau said there are potentially 600,000 to 700,000 Canadians that currently don't have access to internet speeds of at least 1.5 megabits per second. ((Mike Derer/Associated Press))

CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein asked why Garneau was aiming for such a "modest" goal. He noted that Telus Corp. told the commission that 1.5 megabits per second has already been achieved except for a "minuscule" percentage of households. By 2011, 98 per cent of households are expected to have access to that speed, according to the office of Industry Minister Tony Clement.

Garneau responded that he wanted a target that was achievable within the next three years, which is "just around the corner." He added that there are potentially 600,000 to 700,000 Canadians who currently lack access to internet speeds of at least 1.5 megabits per second.

Garneau said he would rely as much as possible on market forces to achieve coverage, but the business case in many rural areas is not enough to achieve universal access in a timely manner.

However, he wants the private sector to share the cost of reaching the target. He added that telecom companies currently set aside a small amount of revenues to achieve basic service, and the CRTC should consider whether that money should be applicable to internet service.

Meanwhile, Garneau advocated taking away the obligation for traditional incumbent phone companies to provide internet service, since cable, wireless and satellite companies can now also provide service. He added that regulators should not specify what kind of technology should be used to provide universal broadband access.

Rural expansion underway

The federal government announced in May that it had conditionally approved 52 projects for $76.7 million in funding to expand rural broadband access. As part of its economic stimulus plan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government pledged $225 million to Industry Canada over three years to develop and implement a strategy to extend broadband coverage to as many unserved and underserved households as possible, beginning in 2009-10. 

The program will be completed as of 2011, and at that point, just two per cent of households will be unable to access broadband coverage, said Lynn Meahan, press secretary to the industry minister. "As technology progresses, speeds will increase and we will explore other opportunities to provide them," she added.

Many provincial governments have also committed money to the expansion of rural broadband.

However, Garneau said the government money committed to date has been inadequate.

In July, the CRTC approved a plan for the deployment of broadband internet to 287 rural and remote communities by traditional incumbent phone companies at a cost of $421 million, with rollout taking place over the next four years, funded from special "deferral" accounts.

The money in those accounts was from customers who paid rates higher than their normally regulated price caps so that new competitors entering the market for home phones — primarily cable companies such as Rogers and Vidéotron — could undercut them.